Welcome the mechasexual

Would you make love to a machine? Although this question may strike one as ludicrous, science’s answer is that it all depends how the machine looks like; as well as whether you are a man or a woman. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker tells us in his book “How the mind works” males of many species are aroused by all kinds of objects that resemble, ever so slightly, females including – and I quote – “parts of stuffed females such as a head suspended in mid-air, even parts of stuffed females with important features missing like the eyes and the mouth.” Human males are further aroused by charcoal drawings of breasts and vulvas that they enjoy carving on tree trunks (in foraging cultures), as well as the sight of anonymous females eager for casual sex that populate the world’s pornography industry (in industrialised societies like yours). The – mostly male- human mind seems hardwired to get horny with the faintest hint of a possible sexual partner. Indeed, a visit at your local sex shop will convince you that exploiting the vivid imagination of the male mind has come up with numerous, awkward and sometimes horrifying-looking, variations of deconstructed sexual femininity.

machina_a

But what about artificial sexual partners who actually look and behave like humans? The question has been explored in literature and movies since centuries. Ancient Greek myth tells us of the sculptor Pygmalion who fashioned Galatea out of marble, then married her. And who can forget Maria, the luscious robot, in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis? If so many men cannot tell the difference between a plastic vulva and an actual woman, it is not hard to postulate how they might feel coming across a perfect simulation of a woman. For example, someone like Rachel in Blade Runner, or Ava in the recently released film Ex Machina. What makes Alex Garland’s film ever more pertinent in this discussion on the limits of human sexuality is that Ava is an imperfect female simulation. Apart from her face, hands and feet, the rest of her is most visibly, and transparently, mechanical. And yet she manages to easily seduce human programmer Caleb, as well as – I bet – most of the males who’ve watched the film. Unlike Keyko (who reveals her robotic identity much later) Ava presents herself, right from the beginning, as an object of sexual desire unashamedly made of mechanical parts; and succeeds to passing the Turing Test on screen and, I would argue, among the aisles too.

Her

As Artificial Intelligence and robots evolve girls like Ava will increasingly begin to populate human homes. Undoubtedly, there will be mechanical boys too. In the beginning there will be many who would doubt that these mechanical sexual partners are anything but animated sex dolls. But as these Avas acquire more sophisticated ways to move, speak, and love, they will ultimately enter our consciousness and pass the Turing Test of our hearts. We will fall in love with them, like Caleb or Pygmalion. If Pinker is right, this is not going be difficult. The era of human mechasexuals will have arrived. A new human gender will demand equal rights with homosexuals and heterosexuals, to live with their mechanical partners, marry them or adopt children. And thus artificial humans will enter our society, not as hard-working, ugly-looking robots labouring at our factories but as beautiful and caring lovers, never-aging, forever faithful, holding our hands and telling us what we need to hear, till the end.

(This article was originally published in Huffington Post/Tech UK)

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Humaness redefined

During 2005 and 2006, I was national facilitator for Greece, in the European project «Meeting of Minds. European Citizens Deliberation on Brain Sciences», a pioneering project in science governance, first of its kind in Europe, where citizens from 9 countries discussed the impact of brain sciences in society. Their recommendations will be taken into consideration in the drawing of research policy of the European Union with respect to brain sciences. For more information:www.meetingmindseurope.org. During the project I was the intermediary between the world of experts (neuroscientists, pharmaceutical company executives, patients organizations, EU and national policy-makers, etc.) and the world of lay people (the citizens). This I was both in Greece on a local-national level, as well as in Brussels, at a European-international level. The subject of the deliberations was “neuroethics”, i.e. how should society manage the knowledge and technologies that are coming forward from the study of the brain. What struck me most from being part of the debating process, indeed facilitating and guiding the debate, were the apparent contradictions that always seemed to crop up. For example, even as most people agreed that there was something “wrong” with artificially modulating the human brain (by chemical or electrical means), very few had an issue with smart drugs that would increase human intelligence. I realized that the cardinal reason for these contradictions came from conflicting and very often confused perceptions as to what exactly constitutes a “human being”. This very confused perception was similar to the one pervading other contemporary sciento-ethical debates, most notably the stem cells and human cloning debate.

A brief bibliographic research that I conducted convinced me that, although there has been much work during the past few years concerning the ethics of science, as well as the apparent “transformation” of humanness (e.g. transhumanism), no concise work exists that addresses the main issue: i.e. what does it mean to be human today, in view of the scientific corpus from biology, genetics and neuroscience.

Part of this blog will be essays focusing on the re-definition of humanness in the 21st century

Eugenics in the 21st century

Synopsis for a Café Scientifique delivered in Thessaloniki)

1950-Jan-Redbook-human-body-smEugenics was a liberal vision because, at the time of Sir Francis Galton, it was radical and against the Victorian class system. By going beyond the class structure, eugenics envisioned a future world of enhanced humans irrespective of class background. It was a truly egalitarian vision inspired by Darwinism and aiming for a balance between nature and nurture.

Following the destruction of the European class system after the carnage of WW1, egalitarian ideas were split between the Left focusing more on the “nurture” side of the argument and the Right corrupting the “nature” side and replacing it with “race”. Liberalism – expressed in the few remaining parliamentary democracies – found itself in the uneasy middle, a follower rather than a leader, a defender of its hijacked ideology.

The extreme Left in Soviet Union and the extreme Right in Nazi Germany were responsible for genocide; the former in “re-education gulags” the latter in “concentration camps”. It was thus that eugenics got a bad name, particularly from the Nazi atrocities which were linked to eugenics during the Nuremberg Trial. The line of the defence for the Nazi criminals was that they did little else compared to what the Americans were doing in their own country by means of forceful sterlization programs. The irony is, of course, that the Nazis while exterminating the Jews were aiming to destroy not an “inferior” race but an antagonistic one, a people who despite their small number had contributed immensely in the European civilisation. Race was a pretext; and this is why a big number of European Christians eagerly joined the Nazis in the slaughter.

Egalitarianism was redefined by the European Left after the war as in direct opposition to eugenics – conveniently forgetting the millions that were dying in Siberia.

But the idea has refused to disappear, because it bods with the fundamental value system of most human beings, i.e. the enhancement of our abilities. In the 21st century eugenics is not used as a term anymore (in order not to elicit negative reactions), but the idea is there, alive and well, manifesting both in technologies that intervene in the genetic make-up of the unborn (“designer babies”), as well as in technologies that may enhance already born humans. How many of us would refuse to becoming cleverer, stronger, healthier, younger and more sexually potent?

The dilemmas of enhancement

There are at least three major moral and political dilemmas that I would like to discuss. The first has to do with the control of the eugenics technologies. Should one support the liberal, free-market economics model, where private companies sell the technologies to the consumers? Or should one involve the State? And to what degree? The dilemma is obvious. If we follow a free-market approach we may arrive at a new class system, where the ultra rich will be able to use the expensive technology to enhance themselves and their offspring. We may end up with a superhuman class, the “GenRich” as it is often called. If we make eugenics a state-controlled commodity, then we uneasily reproduce a totalitarian scenario for the future. One must not forget that the Nazi party was a socialist one.

The second dilemma that I would like to discuss has to do with the technologies themselves. Both pre-natal genetic interventionism and post-natal enhancement (genetic or otherwise) have merits that need to be discussed. For example, in the case of post-natal enhancement how much down the road to becoming cyborgs we go? Finally, the third issue for discussion would be our motivation for human enhancement. One may argue that this is obvious: self-interest. One wants to be an enhanced person because it improves his or her competitiveness in the world. It is precisely the meaning of competitiveness that needs to be discussed. In a planet heading for an environmental tipping point competitiveness may not be the correct strategy, but collaboration. Altruism should be enhanced at the expense of selfishness. But, assuming a genetic disposition for those two social traits, how much does it matter which trait to select for? Is human behaviour governed by genetics? Or is it a result of framing the right game, as many game theorists would argue? And if so, what other reasons we may have for human enhancement? Colonizing another planet may be one of them. For example if humans are ever going to survive on Mars they will have to genetically change; the gravity of the planet is less and its atmosphere (even after terraforming) thinner. Is Eugenics the correct strategy for space colonization?